Hung jury in case of harmed Happi hamster

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 2004

GREENSBORO – A Hale County jury returned as a hung jury Thursday and Judge LaQuincy Lee told prosecutors they would have to retry the case of Kentrell Thomas.

Thomas, a sixth grader at Greensboro East Elementary School, was accused of “attempted manslaughter” after Happi Hamster was injured in a sticky rat trap in Thomas’ home in September.

Members of Tonya Petty’s sixth grade class leveled the charges against Thomas after the pet hamster escaped from its cage while in Thomas’ care on a weekend visit to his home.

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Prosecutors said Happi suffered both physical and emotional injuries after the incident, but the Thomas defense team alleged that Happi had a history of both violence and irrational behavior that lead to the escape attempt.

“I’m being sued for something I did not do – they’re saying its attempted manslaughter,” Thomas told The Times before the trial began.

After deliberating just 15 minutes after an hour-and-a-half trial, the defense team had created enough doubt as to Thomas’ guilt to keep two jurors from voting for guilt.

Through what can only be characterized as an emotionally charged trial, Lee had, at times, trouble keeping decorum in the room – once threatening a prosecutor with removal from the courtroom for continued outbursts and badgering witnesses during testimony.

Under the direction of lead prosecutor Jaretta Thomas, the state’s prosecutorial team of Keon Paige, Oneshia Patterson and Shandon McCalpine could overcome the reasonable doubt created by defense attorneys Keith Watkins, Marquoise Cottrell, Marquail Gray and Raymond Wilson.

A total of 19 witnesses testified to the events as they saw them, including Duree Lambeth, another sixth grade teacher at the school who called Happi “rambunctious.”

Perhaps the most convincing testimony, however, came from the defendant himself, who pointed out that most of the prosecutorial team had previous bad experiences with Happi.

“I don’t want to take Happi home again. He’s too much trouble,” Thomas told jurors. He also testified that he wished Happi no harm and that he had done what was necessary to “rescue” Happi from the trap.

The mock trial was part of a learning experience for the sixth graders, and was based on an actual event – the accused was really accused but the record of the trial, thankfully, won’t very make it on the students’ permanent record.

“I’d rather [the students] be here in this setting than in another situation,” said Principal Janet Sherrod, who was in attendance at court and was one of the witnesses called by the prosecution, although a student played her role at trial.

“It teaches them about how things are handled and being in the court house in a real court room gives them something different. It helps them organize, research and helps them with public speaking,” she said.

Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins, whose primary responsibility in the trial was videotaping the proceedings, echoed Sherrod’s thoughts.

“I think the positives far outweighs any negatives the students see in a trial,” he said. “This is a great learning experience for them.”

Wiggins, and State Rep. Bobby Singleton helped stage the event, and both coached judge, jury and attorneys during the trial.